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Unlike his friends in Al-Najeen, Rasheed had a chance to leave Iraq. His uncle, the Iraqi actor Al No’mani, consulted on and acted in David O. Russell’s Three Kings. During the shooting, he invited his nephew to move to L.A. and offered to get him a job on the set. But Rasheed didn’t want to leave Baghdad.
“I believe in something — the filmmaker belongs in his place,” he says. “I built my entire memory in this place. If we asked Quentin Tarantino to make a film about Baghdad, he would not do as good a job as me. And if I wanted to make a film about L.A., I would not make as good a film as him. I want to feel all the pain, all the changes in Baghdad.”
Like many of his friends, Rasheed was kicked out of film school. He claims it wasn’t for political reasons — “Drink a lot, fight a lot,” he says, grinning — but the Baathist mindset was inherently political, and he didn’t fit into it. Invited to work for Shebab TV, the channel run by Saddam’s son Uday, he refused. While his contemporaries produced epics about Hashemite kings, Rasheed learned his craft by writing TV scripts and shooting short documentaries on video. His last film, a documentary about a laborer and a 9-year-old shoeshine boy who touts a prostitute, landed him in trouble. The government film foundation confiscated the movie when a Baathist cinematographer denounced it as anti-regime.
When Baghdad fell, Al-Najeen emerged from underground. Hamed placed one of his sculptures — of a beautiful, stylized Iraqi family — on the pedestal from which a statue of Saddam had been toppled on live TV. Al-Hajar directed a play in the ruins of the National Theater, incorporating parts of Caligula. And Rasheed rushed to the government film ministry to see if he could find his film.
He was too late: Looters had burned it. So he set about buying film from the “Ali Babas,” who sold it by the kilo in the booming thieves’ markets, and from the silver peddlers who buy film to strip out the silver nitrate. Because celluloid was banned under U.N.-imposed sanctions — the chemicals were considered “dual-use” — the looted film stock was decades out of date. Taking advantage of his newfound freedom to use the Internet without being monitored, Rasheed wrote a series of e-mails, full of enthusiastic hyperbole, to the Kodak Corp. Kodak agreed to process the exposed film, discontinued in 1952, for free.
At 80 cans of film — about half of what a normal feature would use — the free processing will save them $7,808. But everything else costs money, including the stock itself, which ran about $7,000. All of Al-Najeen is helping out: Rasheed sold his car, a 1985 Passat, for $2,000; actor Samar Kahtan sold his land for $1,200; photo printer Turky sold a color enlarger, equipment essential to his livelihood, for $4,000 and borrowed $2,500 more. “We sold everything,” jokes Basim Al-Hajar, “except our honor.”
Rasheed is calling his movie Gheir Saleh — literally translated, it means “out of date.” But his English title is Under Exposure, a reference both to the properties of the old film stock and to his own newly redeemed generation of Iraqi artists. “We live lives that are underexposed, from Saddam Hussein to now,” says Rasheed. “We have been waiting for years to get this chance.”
Annia Ciezadlo is a freelance writer based in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and POZ magazine.
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